A song of her own: Leyla McCalla returns in solo performance, showcasing distinct sound


Leyla McCalla first performed at Chautauqua in 2019, taking the Amphitheater stage with American folk group Our Native Daughters. Now, the multi-instrumentalist, multilingual singer-songwriter will headline her own show at 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amp.

McCalla, who’s a New York native with Haitian heritage, finds inspiration in her past and present, to produce music that is reflective of her roots. 

McCalla’s fifth solo album, Sun Without the Heat, with tracks like “Scaled to Survive,” “Sun Without the Heat,” and “Love we Had,” was released April 12. According to her website, McCalla gathered lyrical inspiration for the album from “the writings of Black feminist Afrofuturist thinkers including Octavia Butler, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and Adrienne Maree Brown.”

Sun Without the Heat is an experimental album, McCalla told The BlueGrass Situation, and she plays more guitar on this record than any of her previous ones.

“For me, it was really about delving into the songwriting and figuring out what I wanted to say,” she said.

Throughout her career, McCalla has mastered the cello, tenor banjo and guitar, all which she uses to create her distinctive folk sounds. 

Outside of her solo work, McCalla was the cellist for Grammy Award-winning band Carolina Chocolate Drops from 2011 to 2013; the group disbanded the following when various members went on to pursue other projects. One of those other members was Rihannon Giddens, and one of those other projects was the band Our Native Daughters, who performed at Chautauqua following the release of their 2019 album Songs of Our Native Daughters, released through Smithsonian Folkways.

With McCalla’s return to the Amp, each founding member of the group — Giddens, McCalla, Allison Russell and Amythst Kiah — will have performed at Chautauqua solo.

Giddens, who first came in 2018 to workshop Lucy Negro Redux with the Nashville Ballet and perform with her creative and life partner Francesco Turrisi, returned in 2022 to give a lecture on the cultural meanings of the banjo and perform with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra. Kiah’s last performance in Chautauqua was in 2021, on the tour for her album Wary + Strange. Russel returned to the Amp in 2021 as Margo Price’s special guest the same week as Kiah’s performance.

On McCalla’s website, the 10 tracks on Sun Without Heat are said to achieve a “heaviness and light with melodies and rhythms derived from various forms of Afro-diasporic music including Afrobeat, Ethiopian modalities, Brazilian Tropicalismo, and American folk and blues.” As a whole, according to the blurb, the album’s sound is “playful and full of joy while holding the pain and tension of transformation.”

Tags : carolina chocolate dropsLeyla McCallaLove we HadmusicOur Native DaughtersPopular EntertainmentRihannon GiddensScaled to SurviveSongs of Our Native DaughtersSun Without the Heat

The author Sabine Obermoller